Breathe freely: On the 75th birthday of Younghi Pagh-Paan

Breathe freely: On the 75th birthday of Younghi Pagh-Paan

A portrait by Volker Hagedorn

She has just moved – transferred her study from the second floor to the first in the Bremen house where she has lived alone for the last three years. Now she can step right out onto the balcony from the wooden desk on which she writes music, and imagine herself in Panicale in Umbria, where she and her husband spent his last summer before he passed away at the age of 93. The two had much in common, not only sharing a birthday on 30th November, but also a respect for each other’s work. “He was never domineering,” she says, “I would have left otherwise.” Now she could make his room her own, aware of the freedom that is so important to her. 

As one may hear from her music, it is not a simple freedom. Not an “anything goes” or a “I do what I want.” Rather, Younghi Pagh-Paan does what the music wants. “The nascent music is so jealous a creature that it refuses to accept me as a human being. I am its loyal subject. It eats me up, and I am happy to devote myself to this creature. That’s why I cannot do the housework,” she laughed when I interviewed her five years ago. It was her father that kept her from doing kitchen work – unusual for his generation, and especially for Korea in the 1950s. The seventh of eight children, “the sister with the manuscript paper” was taken seriously with her love of music.

This love was needed too. The engineer and his wife had lost their third child, their 17-year-old son, in the Korean war. And so, the daughter sang to her father “To bring him a little joy. It was no la la la. He was grieving so much and drinking every day, and then his liver packed in.” He was only 47 years old. She was 11 and had lost her only listener. She never sang again, composing all the more for voices – most recently this year’s Mein Herz I for soprano and viola. It is, in the words of H.C. Artmann, a work of great tension and clarity – or rather clarté, because as in Debussy’s mélodies, no meaning is implied. The words are transformed into a light, sounding reality. 

With “ne ma-um” (my heart) embedded within the German lyrics, the words also recall the Korean identity which played a decisive role in her self-discovery as a composer after the “culture shock” she experienced as a 28-year-old in Freiburg. As a girl, she found her way to European music with the radio in Korea, via the romantic works the Americans brought to the airwaves. Younghi would note down the melodies and play them on the only piano in the provincial town of Cheongju – unofficially and early in the mornings at the school. She went on to study music in Seoul and came to Germany on a scholarship. 

But in Freiburg, the standard of her fellow students quite literally took her breath away: “I fell down because I couldn’t get any air.” She found her breath again in composition, along with the “Korean River,” to which the 1975 piece Man-nam for clarinet and string trio leads – the river of thought, the river in Cheongju whose banks played host to a market twice per month with animals, spices, and performers. She soon combined their South Korean peasant music with modern western techniques – and so at Donaueschingen in 1980, the audience listened in amazement to the orchestral work Sori, unaware that the aleatoric sound explosion in the middle of the piece was a reflection of the massacre with which the South Korean dictatorship stopped the democracy movement that very same year.  

That was 40 years ago, and since then Younghi Pagh-Paan has created almost 90 other works. It is impossible here to measure the scale of this cosmos, whose sources and subjects range from antiquity to Catholicism – to which the composer professes herself – from the Chinese Dao to the mystic Simone Weil, from whom the composer’s (as yet) only string quartet borrows its title: Horizont auf hoher See, premiered in 2017 by the Arditti Quartet. In the midst of the profession’s most occidental “supreme discipline” one experiences new freedom, a feeling of movement, conveyed in structures that are as complex as they are transparent. Nowhere is it oppressive, nowhere does the highly-conscious balance try to “get to the point.” Trust is better than control, the music seems to say. It breathes freely and without a mask, and so, is too a memento – of the future.

translated from German by Zack Ferriday

Photo: Si-Chan Park